Construction is set to start this month on a new natural gas pipeline through the core range of Alberta's most endangered woodland caribou herd, even though the province has yet to implement a long-awaited plan to save the threatened species.
Provincial regulators have approved an application by Suncor Energy and ConocoPhillips Canada to construct the 102-kilometre pipeline through the middle of critical habitat used by the Little Smoky caribou herd, in the foothills west of Hinton.
The herd, which has dwindled to less than 80 animals, has been described in a draft of the Alberta government's caribou recovery plan as being "at immediate risk of extirpation" - or on the brink of extinction.
The pipeline approval "stinks, it absolutely stinks," says Glen Semenchuk, executive director of the Federation of Alberta Naturalists, who has spent the last two years working with caribou biologists and other stakeholders on a province-wide recovery plan for the species.
"Where do you draw the line?" Semenchuk said. "Do we write this herd off and go to the next herd and the next?" But the companies and the government are defending the pipeline's approval and an accompanying plan to restore habitat for the Little Smoky herd.
Suncor and ConocoPhillips intend to spend $1.5 million to restore about 400 linear kilometres of the herd's 3,200-square-kilometre range that have already been disturbed by industrial development, says Suncor spokesperson Darcie Park.
The Little Smoky herd, along with the range of the separate A La Peche herd south of Highway 40, is fragmented by some 14,000 kilometres of roads, pipelines and seismic lines.
The two companies' plan includes replanting old seismic lines and putting in place fallen trees, berms and other physical barriers to help keep people and animal predators out of Little Smoky herd's range.
"We're hoping we can actually return a significant portion of the Little Smoky range to usable caribou habitat," Park said.
Dave Ealey, a spokesman for Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, says the department approved the pipeline's right-of-way through the herd's range because of Suncor and ConocoPhillips' commitment to try to restore a larger part of the habitat.
The Alberta Energy and Utilities Board also approved the project over the objections of conservation groups.
"There are absolutely no guarantees that this particular (restoration) process is going to work," Ealey acknowledged. "But it certainly is a worthwhile effort to address the habitat issue." Semenchuk, however, said none of the restoration methods proposed by the companies has been field-tested, so no one knows whether they'll actually work.
Conservation groups asked the companies to delay pipeline construction for a year while the firms test the restoration techniques.
"Once the pipeline is in there, it's just going to lead to further (gas well) tie-ins and further infrastructure and other activity by other oil and gas companies," said Lara Smandych, a conservation biologist at the Alberta Wilderness Association.
Suncor's Park said the pipeline is needed to transport increasing amounts of natural gas being produced from the foothills region to the company's Simonette gas plant, about 120 kilometres north of Hinton.
Delaying the pipeline and the habitat-restoration program wouldn't be in the best interest of the Little Smoky herd, Park said. "Without any attempts to address the problem there, the herd is declining at a rate of about 10 per cent a year." Conservation groups say a report by two independent scientists hired by Suncor and ConocoPhillips to look at the impacts of the pipeline and an alternative route "strongly recommended" finding a route outside the range of threatened caribou herds.
But Park said that the consultants concluded only that some parts of the alternative route would have less impact on the Little Smoky herd than the original route through their habitat.
The alternative route, which was longer and significantly more expensive, also would have meant clearing more forest for the pipeline's right-of-way, Park said.
On the other hand, about 93 per cent of the original right-of-way through the caribou's habitat has been designed to follow existing disturbances such as old seismic lines and cutlines, she added.
"We really feel that if this restoration plan is successful, the whole pipeline project would have an overall net benefit for the Little Smoky herd, because we will be restoring far more habitat than we actually disturb," Park said.
Suncor estimates the cost of building the pipeline at $60 million, not including the costs of planned upgrades (to recover more sulphur) at the company's Simonette gas plant.
Semenchuk said the $1.5 million the two oil companies intend to spend on unproven methods to restore caribou habitat is just a fraction of the pipeline project's total cost.
He added it amounts to little more than a "green tax" so the firms can run the pipeline through the Little Smoky herd's habitat, a shorter route that will cost them much less to build than the alternative route.
The companies should at least wait until the province's caribou recovery plan is implemented and the herd's range can be assessed by a team of experts as recommended in the plan, Semenchuk said.
The plan has been approved by the government's multi-stakeholder Endangered Species Conservation Committee, which includes caribou scientists.
Sustainable Resource Development received the plan in May, but it is still being reviewed within the department and hasn't yet gone to the minister, Ealey said.
The department will use the recovery plan along with other information to design an on-the-ground plan to conserve the Little Smoky herd and other threatened woodland caribou herds in Alberta, he said.
However, the conservation plan will need to be reviewed by several departments, so Ealey couldn't say exactly when it will be released and implemented. "Certainly it's something we hope could be out during the next year." In the meantime, the department is working with various industry sectors to take steps to protect the caribou herds and their habitat, through initiatives such as the Suncor and ConocoPhillips habitat-restoration plan, Ealey said.
The northwest Alberta land base used by the caribou also supports industrial activities that help fuel the province's economy, he noted. "Our objective is to try to make conservation work while still having a northern economy." Conservation groups say they're particularly disappointed that Suncor would build a new pipeline through the core range of Alberta's most endangered caribou herd.
The company is a member of the Canadian Boreal Initiative, an organization that includes conservation groups, First Nations, industry and other interested parties that have signed a framework committing them to the conservation and sustainable development of Canada's boreal forest region - where the woodland caribou live.
One of Suncor's vice- presidents is a member of the organization's leadership council or steering committee.
Semenchuk said the pipeline project shows a blatant disregard for the framework and its commitment to conserving the boreal forest. He said he has asked other conservation groups in the Canadian Boreal Initiative to reconsider Suncor's involvement and membership.
(Mark Lowey can be reached at email@example.com)